Ways of seeing: Immigration is a bipartisan issue


Recently, news and media coverage highlighted video footage and images of border agents near Del Rio, Texas, grossly abusing Haitian migrants crossing the Rio Grande into the United States. These Haitians, fleeing a nation recently devastated by the assassination of its president and then slammed by natural disasters, traveled across land and sea to seek asylum in the United States. They were met with violent attacks by agents of the state on horseback as if they were animals.

In response to this grossly inhumane treatment, Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been put “in charge” of border and immigration policy by the Biden Administration, immediately suspended horseback patrols along the U.S.-Mexico border. Great. That’s a good first step. Nobody should be met by a charging horse and a man with a whip for trying to flee a terrible situation.

But suspending horse patrol is not enough. We need to do so much more. At the same time, we must understand that putting all of that on Kamala Harris, or even the Biden Administration, would be setting them up for failure. The problem with our immigration system, especially as it plays out at our southern border, is massive. It has been decades in the making, and its undoing will likely take decades as well.

As I sat down to write this, I saw an article in The New York Times entitled, “Biden is Taking a Page out of Trump’s Immigration Playbook.” It outlined how Donald Trump eroded asylum rights when he was in office and, toward the end of his term, used COVID as a public health threat to deny even more people access to asylum. According to the article, even though Biden has dismantled some of Trump’s immigration restrictions (it listed a ban on Muslims as one example), it noted Biden’s continuation of deportation of asylum seekers. I would add his detention of migrant families.

Trump’s immigration policies were awful, to be sure. But his stance on inhumane immigration practices was not unique to him. Denying entry based on public health, for instance, has a long history, particularly at the southern border. In 1916, for example, an outbreak of typhus in South Texas barred some Mexican migrants from entering and institutionalized public bathing upon entry for decades to come. From then on, when Mexican migrants wanted to cross the border, even as day laborers, U.S. public health officials forced them to strip naked to have their clothes steamed while officials sprayed them with a mixture of kerosene and water. Decades later, after pesticides were developed, officials sprayed migrants with DDT upon entry. All the while, if someone appeared really ill, officials denied them entry. Barring immigrants due to health concerns happened at Angel Island and Ellis Island as well.

Deportation practices peaked during the Obama administration. Big border fence construction projects happened under George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and just about every president between 1945 and 1995, whether they were Republican or Democrat. Inhumane treatment of immigrants is a bipartisan, American policy, it’s not a Trump policy or a Biden policy.

If we no longer want to accept it, we all need to make our voices heard by voting, calling our own congresspeople and senators, and supporting candidates who are ready to change this narrative. I do believe our current administration wants to help facilitate that change, but they cannot undo decades of violence and complacency without congressional support and the support of their constituents.

Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history and Latino/a Studies at Penn State University. She lives in Weybridge, Vermont.

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